“The essense of the Kaizen strategy is that not a day should go by without some kind of improvement being made somewhere in the company.”
-Masaaki Imai

The majority of business leaders who try to embrace Lean will fail. They won’t fail because they aren’t motivated or committed, but because they weren’t able to change the culture of the workplace.

Process Improvement can’t come from the corner office, and it can’t be driven via email. It needs to percolate into how your team thinks and feels about their daily routines. That culture is a unique combination of philosophy and action called Kaizen.

What is Kaizen:

Kaizen is Japanese for “change for the better.” As a Lean tool, it focuses on creating a workplace culture wherein everyone, from Janitor to CEO, is empowered to think about small changes that they can make to eliminate waste and simplify overly complex processes.

It’s not about big changes. It’s about making sure everyone knows where the stapler is (and puts it back after). It’s about re-delegating so that a file passes across one less desk on its way to being finalized. It’s about changes so small you wouldn’t notice them, until they accumulate and become real profitability.

Philosophy from Action:

There are 2 elements to Kaizen – the goal oriented actions and the culture-building philosophy. You can’t implement a cultural shift, but you can get everyone involved in its daily actions. Those actions, over time, build the culture.

Kaizen isn’t abstract theory. It’s an apparatus of actions, each designed to make one small change. Here’s what a specific Kaizen action looks like:

  • Set a goal to make a small improvement in one department
  • Bring in people familiar with that department’s processes and access what improvement can be made
  • Implement the improvements
  • Review anything that’s working with the change
  • Have a plan to make sure the improvement is long term sustainable

Repeat this action, department after department. Give ownership to the departmental team for identifying and fixing, and provide them them the resources to do it.

Don’t go for the giant complex changes. Improve slowly, step by step. 50 small improvements, made consistently over time, will make a larger cultural change than 5 big ones.

The actions will build the culture. People will start to look for improvements in their departments, and as the improvements accumulate and they start seeing real progress they’ll feel proud of what they’ve done. With that pride, they’ll want more, and that is the heart of the cultural shift you need.

The Power of a Collective:

Kaizen CultureIt’s impossible for you, as leader, to identify, eliminate and protect against the waste that’s engrained into everyday processes across your company. It won’t work unless everyone has bought in, and a culture of Kaizen, developed from the actions you’re taking, becomes the true driving force.

The key to building the culture is consistency of action. If it’s sporadic, exhausting, forced, or half-ass, it won’t build culture. But once a culture of Kaizen has taken hold in your business, every team member will come to you with ideas to improve.

Further Reading (our first introduction to Kaizen): 3 Qualities of A Leader